Irmgard Keun (6 February 1905 – 5 May 1982) was a German writer.
Born in Berlin, as the daughter of wealthy, liberal-minded parents, Irmgard Keun spent her childhood in Cologne, where the family moved in 1913. In Cologne, Keun attended a Lutheran girls’ school. She graduated from secondary school in 1921, and then attended a boarding school in the Harz, for nine months, to learn household and gardening and to study her foreign languages.
From 1925 to 1927, she attended an acting school and worked as a typist. During this period, she met and fell in love with the writer and director Johannes Tralow, who was 27 years her senior. They married in 1932.
After a short career as an actress in Hamburg, and encouraged by Alfred Döblin, she started writing in 1929. Keun became a success almost overnight, in 1931, when she was 26, after the publication of her first novel Gilgi, Eine von uns (1931, ‘Gilgi, one of us’), which was praised by Hans Fallada, Gabriele Reuter, and Erika Mann, among others. In the following year, the book was made into a movie, Eine von Uns (‘Gilgi: One of Us’, IMDb), directed by Johannes Meyer, with Brigitte Helm as Gilgi.
Also in 1932, she publishes Das kunstseidende Mädchen (1932, ‘The artificial silk girl’), which was also a bestseller. The novel was made into a movie in 1960 (Das kunstseidene Mädchen, IMDb), directed by Julien Duvivier, with Giulietta Masina in the main role. Both novels centre on young women who shed conventional gender roles and long to live independently, embodying the ideals of the New Women.
When the Nazis came to power, Keun’s books were dubbed “Asphaltliteratur”, “immoral” and “anti-German” books, and she was blacklisted in 1933. With her customary audacity, Keun attempted to sue the Gestapo for banning and burning her best-selling books and causing her to lose her earnings. In the book Nach Mitternacht (1937, ‘After Midnight’), she wrote: “This dictatorship has made Germany a perfect country and a perfect country doesn’t need writers. There’s no literature in Paradise. Can’t have writers without imperfection around them, can’t have poets. The purest of lyric poets needs to yearn for perfection. Once you’ve got perfection, poetry stops. Once criticism’s no longer possible, you have to keep quiet.””
In 1936 she went into exile in Ostend, in Belgium. Her Nazi-sympathizing husband, Johannes Tralow, stayed behind in Germany and divorced her in 1937. By that time, she already had a secret love affair with the Jewish doctor Arnold Strauss, who had emigrated to the USA and was waiting for her. Shortly after her arrival in Ostend, she wrote to Arnold Strauss on May 5, 1936: “It may sound pathetic to you, but I see it as my sacred task to help in my way in the fight against Nazism and barbarism. So many who have emigrated have become slack and content once they guaranteed their personal livelihood. […] Forgotten are the thousands upon thousands who perish every hour in the concentration camps. Forgotten are those tormented to death, whose way of thinking was familiar to us. What happens in Germany affects all of humanity. You can’t get comfortable and close your eyes. ” She suffered from depression and was an alcoholic, and her letters to Strauss from this period (particularly, on 3 November 1933 and 3 February 1936) report episodes of self-harm.
Around the same time, she met and fell in love with the Austrian writer Joseph Roth, and they lived together from 1936 to 1938. They travelled across Europe, both under constant pressure for money and visas. While in exile she became associated with a number of prominent exiled German authors including Stefan Zweig, Ernst Weiss, and Heinrich Mann. As she wrote in her memoir Bilder und Gedichte aus der Emigration (1947, ‘Pictures and Poems from Emigration’), the longer they had been away from the country the harder it was for exiles to write convincingly about and against Nazi Germany, or to find anything else to write about. And she concludes that, at one point, she herself “feared I would never, in my life, be able to write a book again.”
During this time, she lived in numerous countries including France, Poland, Switzerland, and the United States. During this period, she wrote two of her best known books, Nach Mitternacht (1937, ‘After Midnight’), about life in Germany during the Nazi regime, and Kind aller Länder (1938, ‘Child of All Nations’), about a child living in exile (published by the renowned Querido publishing house in Amsterdam). In Nach Mitternacht, a satirical novel about Nazi Germany, she wrote, in a scene where the narrator describes a parade on the occasion of Hitler’s visit to the city: “And slowly a car drove by, in it the Führer stood like the Carnival prince in a carnival suit. But he wasn’t as funny and happy as the Carnival prince and didn’t throw candies and bouquets either, just raised an empty hand.” This book was also made into a film in 1981 (Nach Mitternacht, IMDb), directed by Wolf Gremm, and Irmgard Keun herself plays a small role in it as an old lady in a Café.
As Volk Weidermann wrote in Ostende: 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft (2014. English: Summer Before the Dark, 2017), “Irmgard Keun has a childlike propensity to question absolutely everything”. In 1939, Joseph Roth died in Paris in May 1939. As he had once written: “I take more time dying than I ever had living”.
After the German invasion of the Netherlands, Keun did the oddest thing: she staged her own suicide and arranged for a newspaper to report that she had killed herself after the fall of France. On August 16, 1940, the “Daily Telegraph” carried news. Then, she smuggled herself back into Germany, in 1940, with false papers, as “Charlotte Tralow”. She returned to Cologne, where she lived in hiding in her own apartment, near her parents, who helped her financially. She lived undercover until 1945.
After the war, she had been largely forgotten, and lived with her parents in their bomb-damaged home in Cologne. She was offered a job for the radio, which she was not sure she should accept – she could never forget that many of her fellow men had been Nazis. On September 10, 1946, she wrote to Hermann Kesten: “The people in Germany are just like they always were. They no longer wear swastikas on their suits, but nothing else has changed about them.” In the end, she accepted the offer to work for the radio and wrote cabaret plays, in which she satirized post-war German society, particularly the hypocrisy and opportunism of those she perceived as Nazi collaborators who subsequently styled themselves as democrats. In a letter from 23 November 1947, she wrote Heinrich Mann that all of Germany was suffering under “a pestilential wave of bourgeois smugness, smelly neo-religiosity, bovine earnestness, snivelling dishonesty and dripping self-pity.”
In 1950, she published her last novel, “Ferdinand, der Mann mit dem freundlichen Herzen” (1950, ‘Ferdinand, the man with a friendly heart’), about the return of a prisoner of war, but it was not well-received. Keun was pushed aside and suppressed by the post-war criticism. Some of the critics and publishers of the time had either participated vigorously in the Third Reich, or remained silent. Keun’s sharp satire was for them unbearable for them. It was Irmgard Keun’s last novel, from then on she withdrew into private life.
In 1951, she gave birth to her daughter Martina, whose father she never disclosed. From the mid-1950s onwards she became friends with Heinrich Böll, and, in 1955–56, they collaborated on a satire about the conservative government of West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, adopting the form and style of letters exchanged by two nineteenth-century intellectuals. However, this piece was not published until it was collected in Böll’s Works, in 2006.
Her drinking problems worsened, and, from 1966 to 1972, Keun lived in the psychiatric ward in a hospital in Bonn, and underwent treatment for alcohol-related illnesses. During this time, her daughter lived in boarding schools. After being discharged, in 1972, she lived in impoverished conditions in a small studio apartment.
She was not rediscovered until the late 1970s, when there was a revival of interest in writing by antifascist exiles and by women. Her works were then finally reprinted. In 1980, Elfriede Jelinek gave a speech in her honour. A year before her death, in 1981, Keun received the Marieluise Fleißer Prize.
On May 5, 1982, Irmgard Keun died of a lung tumor in Cologne, aged 77.
- Gilgi, eine von uns (1931), novel
- English: Gilgi, One of Us(2013, tr. Geoff Wilkes. Original: Gilgi, eine von uns, 1931)
- Das kunstseidene Mädchen (1932)
- English: The Artificial Silk Girl
- Das Mädchen, mit dem die Kinder nicht verkehren durften (1936)
- English: Grown-ups Don’t Understand (UK) and The Bad Example (US)
- Nach Mitternacht (1937)
- English: After Midnight
- D-Zug dritter Klasse (1938)
- Kind aller Länder (1938)
- English: Child of All Nations (2008, tr. Michael Hofmann. Original: Kind aller Länder, 1938)
- Bilder und Gedichte aus der Emigration (1947)
- Nur noch Frauen… (1949)
- Ich lebe in einem wilden Wirbel. Briefe an Arnold Strauss 1933 – 1947, by Irmgard Keun, ed. Gabriele Kreis (1988)
- Ferdinand, der Mann mit dem freundlichen Herzen (1950)
- Scherzartikel (1951)
- Wenn wir alle gut wären. Kleine Begebenheiten, Erinnerungen und Geschichten (1954)
- English: If we were all good
- Blühende Neurosen. Flimmerkisten-Blüten (1962)
- Irmgard Keun. Das Werk, 3 vols. (2017)
- Irmgard Keun 1905/2005. Deutungen und Dokumente, ed. Stefanie Arend, Ariane Martin (2005)
- Gender- und Machttransgression im Romanwerk Irmgard Keuns, by Carmen Bescansa (2007)
- Irmgard Keun. Zeitzeugen, Bilder und Dokumente erzählen, ed. Heike Beutel, Anna Barbara Hagin (1995)
- Irmgard Keun in Köln, by Jürgen Egyptien (2019)
- Irmgard Keun, by Hiltrud Häntzschel (2001)
- Irmgard Keuns Romane der Weimarer Republik als moderne Diskursromane, by Maren Lickhardt (2009)
- Stark und Leise. Pionierinnen, by Ursula Krechel (2017)
- „Was man glaubt, gibt es“. Das Leben der Irmgard Keun, by Gabriele Kreis (1991)
- Irmgard Keun. Leben und Werk, by Ingrid Marchlewitz (1999)
- Irmgard Keun. Das Erzählwerk der dreißiger Jahre, by Doris Rosenstein (1991)
- Vom Ernst der Zerstreuung. Schreibende Frauen am Ende der Weimarer Republik: Marieluise Fleißer, Irmgard Keun und Gabriele Tergit, by Liane Schüller (2005)
- Schreibende Frauen. Ein Schaubild im frühen 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Gregor Ackermann, Walter Delabar (2011)
- Das Buch der verbrannten Bücher, by Volker Weidermann (2008)
- Verboten – verfemt – vertrieben. Schriftstellerinnen im Widerstand gegen den Nationalsozialismus, by Edda Ziegler (2010)
- Autorinnen der Weimarer Republik, ed. Walter Fähnders, Helga Karrenbrock (2008)
- Lexikon deutschsprachiger Autorinnen im Exil 1933-1945, ed. Renate Wall (2004)
- Gender, Patriarchy and Fascism in the Third Reich: The Response of Women Writers, ed. Elaine Martin (1993)
- Women Writers in German-Speaking Countries: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, ed. Elke Fredriksen, Elizabeth Ametsbichler (1998)
- Facing Fascism and Confronting the Past: German Women Writers from Weimar to the Present, ed. Elke Frederiksen, Martha Wallach (2000)
- Das kunstseidene Berlin. Irmgard Keuns literarische Schauplätze, by Michael Bienert (2020)
- Irmgard Keun. Schreiben im Spiel mit der Moderne, by Gesche Blume (2005)